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Antioxidants and Macular Degeneration

By Denise Elliot

Macular degeneration causes progressive vision loss due to degeneration of the central part of the retina (the macula), this area of the eye is the portion responsible for fine vision.

Degeneration of the macula is the leading cause of severe visual loss in persons 55 years or older. Worldwide this is an increasing problem and may reach epidemic proportions in this century.

A patient may note that straight objects appear bent, the presence of a dark spot near or around the centre of the visual field, and while reading, that parts of words are missing. The disease progresses slowly and only central vision is lost, peripheral vision remains intact.

If you have observed any of the above symptoms please follow up with professional advice. Ophthalmologic examination may show spots of pigment near the macula, and like many disorders early diagnosis is important.

The ARED (Age Related Eye Disease) study, from 1992 - 2001, involved 3640 participants, with varying stages of macular degeneration, it investigated antioxidants and macular degeneration. It was funded by the American National Eye Institute and offered antioxidant supplementation, providing vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, zinc and copper - or a placebo.

The results showed that although it is not a cure for age related macular degeneration, supplementation provides a key role, and a reduced risk of up to 25% in helping people with high risk of macular degeneration to keep their remaining vision.  

In 2006 a second study (AREDS2) was undertaken looking at lutein, zeaxanthin, DHA and EPA from omega 3. Benefits were shown for those that did not have enough lutein or zeaxanthin in their diet. Omega 3 is a fantastic anti-inflammatory for many disorders, but in this case the antioxidants provided additional protection. This may be due to the degeneration being a result of free radical damage, plus possible lack of blood and oxygen supply to the retina.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids that are present in yellow fruits and vegetables. Commercially, for supplementation the beautiful golden flowers from Calendula officinalis (marigolds) are used for lutein. These flowers can be added to any salad or raw foods. They carry very little flavour but do brighten up any salad. Egg yolks also contain both these nutrients and if sourcing quality free range eggs, cholesterol should not be of concern (a free range egg also provides substantial lecithin, which helps keep cholesterol soluble as lecithin is an emulsifier).

Either a diet high in lutein or supplementation of lutein has shown benefits. A 12 month double blind study, published in the Journal of Optometry in 2004, used either 10mg of lutein, or 10mg of lutein with other vitamins and minerals, or a placebo. Patients receiving the placebo showed no change, however both of the other groups who received the lutein showed improvements.

Oxidant exposure is a major risk factor with macular degeneration, so of course smoking is the number one bad guy, not only does it provide a risk of oxidant exposure it also constricts the arteries, limiting blood flow, which will exacerbate the disease process.

If any of this article is ringing alarm bells for you, please do not ignore them, but follow up with professional support as soon as possible. Your sight will be a blessing as you progress into your later years.